Wisdom Teeth 101

Submitted by Bonnie C. Ferrell, DDS on October 15, 2017

Herb Caen famously said “A man begins cutting his wisdom teeth the first time he bites off more than he can chew.” A clever and memorable quote, but not entirely accurate. While  plenty of amusing lore surrounds them, most people understand very little about wisdom teeth.

Our third molars have carried the name “wisdom teeth” since the mid-1600’s. Contrary to popular belief, the name has little to do with worldly knowledge, the maturity of common   sense, or even cleverness. They got their name simply because they develop later (much later!) than the rest of the teeth in our mouths. For most people, wisdom teeth will erupt between the ages of 17 and 25. Most theories around the development of wisdom teeth conclude that they were evolutionarily designed to arrive as a stand-in for chewing around the time that many of our early ancestors were losing their adult teeth to the rough meat, bones, and nuts that made up their diet (not to mention lack of dental hygiene.) Without these late arrivals, early man wouldn’t be able to chew much and likely wouldn’t live much longer.

As mankind developed dental hygiene practices and oral care, less teeth were being lost in early adulthood and wisdom teeth became less critical to their survival. As an additional side- effect, wisdom teeth arrived to a full set of teeth, often contributing to overcrowding. Though  this doesn’t happen to every mouth, it happens to many. This overcrowding can cause problems with bite alignment, increased decay, or even nerve or jawbone damage. If the mouth simply doesn’t have space to give in the first place, wisdom teeth can become impacted    during the eruption process, which can cause a number of issues like tenderness and swelling.

A common misconception is that everyone must have their wisdom teeth removed sometime in their early twenties. This is not true. Many people have no issues when their wisdom teeth come in, their bite isn’t changed, and things continue on as normal (thought it’s crucial to give the back teeth extra attention as they tend to be more prone to decay.) However, a good percentage of the population will need to have these removed to prevent impacted teeth, misalignment, or damage to bone, teeth, or nerves. Because you are (of course) maintaining regular visits with your dentist at that time, they will be able to determine whether or not your wisdom teeth will need to be removed from x-rays and regular oral examinations. If you feel tenderness or sensitivity developing in the back of your mouth, consult with your dentist right away to see if your wisdom teeth will need attention in the coming months.

Getting your wisdom teeth removed is no cake walk, but it’s not as bad as many people fear. Though you will likely have tenderness and some pain after the procedure, you should start to feel back to normal fairly quickly. Stick to soft foods, use a cold compact and keep head elevated to treat swelling, and get plenty of rest.

To learn more about wisdom teeth, visit https://www.drbonnieferrell.com/

Dr. Bonnie Ferrell and her team proudly serve patients in the Lowry neighborhood of Denver, Colorado.